After the high life: how Filan's finances went west
Shane Filan’s property-crash debts are unlikely to be paid off by the Westlife farewell tour. A clean-living crooner with a young family, he plans to make a new solo career – and a new fortune – but will his bankruptcy cloud his prospects, asks BRIAN BOYD
ON WESTLIFE’S debut single, Swear It Again, the first of a remarkable run of 14 UK and Irish number ones for the group, Shane Filan sang: “Some people say that everything has got its place in time / Even the day must give way to the night.”
He was 19 when the song was released, still a stars-in-his-eyes teenager who, until Westlife were signed by Simon Cowell, had been working in his parents’ takeaway in Sligo town.
Thirteen years later and the day has given way to the dark night of bankruptcy for the boy-band star. A court in Surrey, where the singer now lives with his wife, GIllian, and their three children, declared him bankrupt on Thursday after the collapse of the property business he owned with his brother, Finbarr. The company owes more than €5.5 million to Ulster Bank and Bank of Ireland, and last month his property-development company went into receivership.
It’s a spectacular fall from financial grace for Filan. On the back of 44 million record sales, Westlife have amassed a fortune of about €40 million; they play their farewell concerts next weekend.
He says he was forced into bankruptcy after exhausting all other options. “Together with a team of financial and legal experts I have spent months exploring all possible alternatives to bankruptcy but to no avail. I have worked long and hard to try to reduce my debts, and I am devastated that it came to this conclusion. I now intend to focus on the remaining dates of the Westlife tour and my commitments to the band before looking to rebuild a future for my wife, my three children and myself.”
He is yet another Irish person who has taken up the option of declaring bankruptcy in a British court, as he will face only a year of financial shame: in Ireland the penalty is 12 years.
With all his assets to be transferred to a court-appointed official, he will be allowed an income to support himself and his family. He will not be able to borrow money until he is discharged, this time next year. His name has also been published on Britain’s insolvency register, which gives details of all individual bankruptcy rulings.
There will be huge sympathy for Filan at home. He’s a decent, likeable character whose only crime was to have ploughed all his money into the Irish property market at the height of the boom. This is not a stereotypical case of a mindless pop star throwing the millions he earns into daft investment schemes. Of all the Louis Walsh-nurtured boy-band stars this country has produced, Filan has a reputation as being grounded and decidedly unflash. There was the odd impulsive purchase of an expensive sports car over the years, but when you’re a multimillionaire pop star and still in your early 20s that’s perhaps understandable.
The good news for Filan is that he’s set to rake in a few million euro from Westlife’s farewell tour, which ends with two dates at Croke Park next Friday and Saturday – even if all this money will go straight to the financial officials overseeing his bankruptcy.
The bad news is the potential impact of his bankruptcy on his upcoming solo career. Filan, unlike most of the other members of Westlife, will continue to record and perform, and just last month he signed a solo deal with the giant label Universal. Willie Nelson, Marvin Gaye and Meat Loaf were all legally bankrupt at various stages of their careers, but there is constant pressure in the pop world to present a squeaky-clean image, and any whiff of financial misfortune may militate against a star.
But Louis Walsh, who is looking after Filan’s career and is never one to undersell one of his clients, has said that the Westlife singer could be even more popular as a solo act than as a member of a group. “He’s a better singer than Michael Bublé. I think he’s Ireland’s greatest pop singer, because he’s never been out of tune. Shane is going to be a big artist.”
Filan could do very well as a solo star. For a boy-band singer he has a great voice. Apart from the bankruptcy, there are no tabloid skeletons in his closet, and the mainstream pop market is always crying out for a personable, clean-living crooner who knows how to handle a cover version.
But pop stars desperately need publicity to survive, and Filan won’t be thrilled by the prospect of sitting on so many TV sofas having to constantly bat away inquiries about his finances and how much he still owes to whom. It could all get a bit off-message in the strictly formatted world of pop promotion.
Walsh already has a line Filan can run with. This week, already turning adversity into a type of virtue, he said: “Shane is going to have a great solo career and make millions. He’ll start all over again and remake the riches in no time at all. He had no money when he started off before Westlife, and now he’ll make it all back.”
From a family of six children in Sligo town, Filan grew interested in pop music after listening to Michael Jackson albums. At the age of 12 he got a part in his local school’s production of Grease, alongside Kian Egan and Mark Feehily, who would later join him in Westlife, and was set on a career in show business.
It was Filan’s mother, Mae, who got in touch with Walsh and asked him to run the rule over the boy band IOYOU that Filan and his school friends had formed. Impressed, Walsh made a few personnel changes and arranged an audition with Simon Cowell, who promptly signed them to a long-term deal.
Never a critic’s favourite, Westlife were a huge success from their first release. Their singles and albums sold by the million, and their tours invariably sold out. They didn’t write many songs – songwriting is the part of the music industry that generates big money, and their biggest hits were all cover versions – but the scale of their pangenerational appeal meant millions were flowing into the Westlife account.
Filan set up a property business, Shafin Developments, in 2004. The Celtic Tiger was at full roar and the property market was showing huge returns. At what in retrospect was the worst possible time he took out large bank loans, with his glittering career as collateral, and went on a property shopping spree.
Using loans from Ulster Bank and Bank of Ireland, Shafin Developments funded a 90-unit housing estate in Co Leitrim, which is incomplete; other projects, including a supermarket in Dromahair, Co Leitrim, a neighbourhood centre in Carraroe, Co Sligo, and a clothes shop in Ballina, Co Mayo, have been halted. Those who know him say his property investments were not reckless for the times that were in it, and Filan is known to be a cautious person. He might have ploughed what appears to have been his entire fortune into the Irish property market, but he is just one of many who have had their fingers burned.
As Jimmy Durante had it: “Be nice to people on the way up, because you meet them on your way down.” Filan at least has that small consolation as he waves goodbye to Westlife next weekend at Croke Park, says hello to bankruptcy and embarks on a solo career the success of which is now more crucial than he could ever have imagined.
NameShane Steven Sherlock Filan.
OccupationSoon-to-be former boy-band member who is hoping to be the next Michael Bublé.
Celtic Tiger casualty ratingVery high. On Thursday he was declared bankrupt by an English court after his unfortunate brush with the Irish property market.
PrognosisHe is truly flying without wings.